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Was It Really ‘Human Error’ That Had Muslim Doctoral Student Put on the No Fly List?

Dr. Rahinah Ibrahim

In recent weeks, it has been learned that a Malaysian doctoral student, who was twice granted a visa from the United States to study and obtain degrees  architecture, including a Ph. D, had her due process rights violated when she was placed on the no-fly list. She never posed a threat to the US, something the government conceded in a trial in December of last year. Yet, according to the government, her placement on the list was a result of “human error,” not because of the intricate system of putting people on watch lists that has developed since the September 11th attacks.

On January 2, 2005, Dr. Ibrahim was scheduled to be on board a flight from San Francisco to Kona, Hawaii. San Francisco police claimed she had “overstayed her visa,” according to a filed trial brief. Immigration documents showed this was not correct. Still, police led her away in handcuffs in front of her daughter, Rafeah, and about 50 others who were in line at a United Airlines counter. (Rafeah is a US citizen.)

Ibrahim was “publicly humiliated” and “imprisoned for approximately two hours, searched in a culturally insensitive manner, denied her medication until the paramedics were called and denied the ability to use the restroom in private.” She wanted to speak to an FBI agent named Kevin Kelley, the same agent who apparently committed the “human error” in this case that led to her being put on the no-fly list. She thought speaking to him would make it possible to clear her name. She did not get to speak with him and was released without any explanation.

Lee Korman, an Aviation Security Inspector with the Department of Homeland Security met Dr. Ibrahim in the holding cell and informed her that her name had been removed from the no-fly list. She was put on a flight the next day, but it was clear her name was not totally cleared. She was given a “bright red colored boarding pass” and given an “SSSS” status that led agents to subject her to “enhanced searches.”

In March 2005, when she wanted to travel to the US to complete her thesis, she was told her visa had been revoked and could not board her flight from Kuala Lumpur. And, again, in 2009, when she attempted to obtain a visa to travel to the US to be deposed for her case against the US government and to participate in her own trial, she was told she could not travel because of a section of the Immigrant and Nationality Act. When she asked what the section meant, a State Department representative wrote out the word “terrorist” on her visa application, right in front of her.

Ultimately, the judge decided her due process rights had been violated because the government claimed she was placed on the list because of “human error within the FBI.”

“This was no minor human error but an error with palpable impact, leading to the humiliation, cuffing and incarceration of an innocent and incapacitated air traveler. That it was human error may seem hard to accept—the FBI agent filled out the nomination form in a way exactly opposite from the instructions on the form, a bureaucratic analogy to a surgeon amputating the wrong digit—human error, yes, but of considerable consequence,” Judge William Alsup concluded. more…

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Kevin Gosztola

Kevin Gosztola

Kevin Gosztola is managing editor of Shadowproof. He also produces and co-hosts the weekly podcast, "Unauthorized Disclosure."